Hồ Chí Minh, Wikipedia, Blogs and Knowledge Production in the Digital Age

One of the reasons why I decided to start writing this blog back in 2010 was in order to share some of the things that I knew and thought, but which I realized I would never include in my academic writings.

Scholars/professors acquire a lot of knowledge and insights over the years from engaging in research and teaching that never make it into their academic writings. What is more, in the past there were very few ways for scholars/professors to share that information so that it could end up educating more people.

A scholar/professor might share some of those ideas in talking to a graduate student who came to her/his office, and that graduate student might then go on to build on them in her/his dissertation. Or alternately, a scholar/professor might mention something to a colleague at a conference over drinks at a bar, and that colleague might then go on to include that information in her/his own academic writing.

Other than those limited means of sharing information, much of what professors/scholars knew, stayed in their brains.


In 2010 it dawned on me that the Internet could be like one enormous professor’s office, or an always-open conference bar, where anyone at any time can find out what it is that a scholar/professor knows or thinks, but hasn’t written (or never will write) about.

At the same time, I was also aware that “common people” had already discovered the power of the Internet for spreading knowledge, and the success of Wikipedia was the clearest sign of that. Nonetheless, this was creating “problems,” as many of the people who were contributing to Wikipedia (and still are) were not experts on the topics they were writing about.

So another reason for writing the blog was to put ideas out there on the Internet that were not well-represented (including on sites like Wikipedia, which I confess, I’m too lazy to contribute to), but which I felt were academically valid.


Today I was reminded of all of this when I saw that a blog entry that I wrote was referenced on the Wikipedia page for Hồ Chí Minh, to refute the claim that Hồ Chí Minh once said “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

I actually noticed this a few weeks ago (as I saw that someone had linked to the blog from that Wikipedia page). At that time, whoever included that information had simply said something on the “talk” page for the Hồ Chí Minh Wikipedia page about how someone on a blog had provided a lot of information that questioned the claim that Hồ Chí Minh had made that statement.

Today, however, I noticed that a lot more information has been provided in an effort to demonstrate that this blog is “scholarly,” and therefore (theoretically) reliable.

I’m assuming that the editors at Wikipedia must have contacted the person who wrote that information, and that that person then provided the information about me to add “weight” to its believability.


I find this all very interesting for what it says about how knowledge is produced in the digital age.

I am not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh, and I am not an expert on the period of history when Hồ Chí Minh allegedly made that statement. There are, meanwhile, plenty of scholars in the world who are experts on one or both of these topics.

At the same time, the ideas that I presented in that blog article are ones that I have come to think after reading and teaching about Vietnamese (and Southeast Asian, and East Asian and world) history, and they are the type of ideas that if there were no Internet, I would mention to a graduate student in my office, or to a colleague over drinks at a conference bar.

However, before the time of the Internet, I never would have written those ideas down, as I don’t write about that period. And finally, who knows how long it would take before one of the experts on that period were to talk about that quote? And if someone did (such as the graduate student in my office or the colleague at the conference bar), how much longer would it take for something written in a single academic writing to reach a general audience?


Wikipedia aspires to create “crowd-sourced” knowledge that is nonetheless scholarly valid. Are the ideas of a “scholar” who is not an expert on Hồ Chí Minh or the 1940s-1950s on a “sometimes/somewhat scholarly blog” valid?

I guess they are until the time comes when a true expert comes along and offers another interpretation, which is what Wikipedia is designed to enable. Or maybe I just saved that person the need to do so? 😉

I’m not sure, but in teaching about this period recently I remembered that there is another comment related to this topic.


In a documentary entitled “Pacific Century: From the Barrel of a Gun,” a former OSS officer by the name of Allison K. Thomas says that in a conversation that he had with Hồ Chí Minh (in I’m guessing 1945), Hồ Chí Minh said the following regarding his desire to gain the support for Vietnamese independence from the US: “He told me privately that he would welcome one million American soldiers, but not one French soldier.” (The quote starts at 3:42 in this video.)

So Thomas was “privately” told by Hồ Chí Minh that he would rather have American soldiers in Vietnam than French ones, and Paul Mus heard from “a good source” that Hồ Chí Minh would “prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of [his] life.”

This is difficult information to verify. I certainly can’t “prove” that none of this was ever said, but I do think that drawing attention to the fact that these quotes are problematic is better than having people unquestioningly believe them.

So thank you to whoever added that information to Wikipedia. Spreading the ideas that get expressed in my office and at conference bars is one of the reasons why I started this blog.

At the same time, it also feels a bit odd. I always feel that what I write on this blog is “unfinished.” These posts, like conversations in offices and bars, all contain ideas that can be developed further.

Then again, I guess that’s what Wikipedia is too – a place where knowledge can get developed and transformed further – and that it is through this open and continuous process of interactions between “lay people,” “semi-professionals” and “professionals,” as well as between “academic,” “semi-academic” and “ungrounded” ideas, that knowledge is being created before our eyes in the digital age.

Shit People Say About [Country Name] History – or, History in the Age of YouTube

A decade or so ago, whenever I was preparing to teach a class in a course that I had already taught a few times, I would always spend time on the Internet, Googling for any new information (in the form of articles, books, or online content) pertaining to the topic I was going to teach about that day.

These days I find that I spend more and more time looking for new information and material on YouTube.

This then made me realize something: instead of just taking material from YouTube and incorporating it into classes, historians should create content for YouTube.


Of course, there already are a lot of videos about the past on YouTube. People upload history documentaries that have aired on TV, and people also upload historical footage, such as this stuff here from British Pathé.

However, I think that there is a space for a different kind of history video, something more in the “shit people say about XXX history” style.

Yesterday I was looking for short videos that could give a sense of what young people in Malaysia and Singapore are like these days, and I came across many videos such as this one on “Shit Malaysian Girlfriends Say”:

This style of video was not invented by the people who made it. Instead, there already exist many “shit XXX say” videos on YouTube, such as this one on “Shit Asian Dads Say.”

What is important, however, is that these videos are popular, and they “communicate” to people today (I certainly like them!!).

And if people don’t like using 4-letter words, there are also the “[number] types of YYY” style of videos, like this one on “11 Types of Singaporean Colleagues”:

These videos are visually appealing, creative and funny. A video that deals with history would probably have to be a bit different, but I think that there are ways that one could create an engaging series of videos based on this style of video to deconstruct various historical topics.

What is more, to do so is no longer difficult or expensive. It just takes some ideas and the desire to put them into action.

Crowdsourcing the Hồng Đức bản đồ

There are quite a few libraries these days that are using a technique called “crowdsourcing” to transcribe and digitize manuscripts that they have in their collections.

Essentially what libraries are doing are setting up web pages that allow anyone to read and transcribe the pages of a manuscript (i.e., they are asking a “crowd” of people to be a “source” of help). I have set up such a web page to try to transcribe the Hồng Đức bản đồ.

This is an experiment, and the web site seems to run a bit slowly (xin thông cảm), but hopefully it will work and eventually everyone will be able to benefit from having a nice, readable copy of this extremely valuable collection of maps.


The web page is here, and this is the information about the project:

Collectively Transcribing the Hồng Đức bản đồ

The Hồng Đức bản đồ is a very important early collection of Vietnamese maps. In 1962, a version of this collection of maps was published in Saigon. It contained modern Vietnamese transcriptions of the Hán Nôm text on the map. However, the images of the maps were not very clear, and this makes this published version difficult to use.

In an effort to make the Hồng Đức bản đồ accessible to everyone, we are asking anyone who is able and interested to help make a better version of the Hồng Đức bản đồ. Clear images of the maps have been prepared and uploaded to this page, however they do not contain modern Vietnamese transcriptions. Therefore we are asking people to help write the Vietnamese transcriptions. We have provided the 1962 version from Saigon that already contains the transcriptions, and are asking that people help match them to the clearer maps on this web site.

For directions on how to do this, please view the following video:

Our plan is to leave the Hồng Đức bản đồ and the transcriptions that volunteers provide on this web site, so that whoever wants to read it, can do so.

Finally, this version of the Hồng Đức bản đồ is being created under a Creative Commons “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike” (CC BY-NC-SA) license. What that means is that anyone is free to reproduce and alter the content of this web site. However if anyone does so, 1) this web site must be cited, 2) the content from this web site cannot be made commercial, and 3) any reproductions or transformations of the information of this web site must also follow the same rules as this license.

Hợp tác phiên âm bản đồ Hồng Đức

Hồng Đức bản đồ là một bộ tập hợp bản đồ Việt Nam cũ rất quan trọng. Năm 1962, một phiên bản của bộ tập hợp này được xuất bản ở Sài Gòn. Tập sách này gồm cả phần phiên âm những chữ Hán Nôm trên các bản đồ. Tuy nhiên, những hình chụp của các bản đồ này khá mờ, khiến cho người đọc không dễ dàng nhìn ra các kí tự trên bản đồ.

Với cố gắng đưa tập Hồng Đức bản đồ đến với nhiều độc giả, người thiết kế dự án này xin mời bất kì tình nguyện viên nào có thể và có hứng thú hợp tác làm một phiên bản tốt hơn cho bản đồ Hồng Đức. Những ảnh rõ nét hơn cho các bản đồ đang được chuẩn bị và tải lên trang này, song đây là những ảnh của các bản đồ không kèm theo phiên âm các chữ Hán Nôm có trên bản đồ. Vì vậy, dự án được thiết kế nhằm kêu gọi mọi người hợp tác làm phần phiên âm cho các bản đồ này. Trang mạng sẽ cung cấp phần phiên âm trong phiên bản năm 1962 của Sài Gòn và bằng việc đối chiếu với thông tin phiên âm này, mọi người có thể gõ ra phần phiên âm gắn vào những hình sao bản đồ rõ nét hơn trên trang này.

Xin mời xem đoạn video sau đây về hướng dẫn cách làm phiên âm:

Kế hoạch của đề tài này là sẽ để Hồng Đức bản đồ và phần phiên âm do các tình nguyện viên thực hiện mở trên trang mạng này; bất kì ai muốn đọc đều có thể truy cập vào đọc.

Phiên bản trình bày trên trang mạng này được làm ra dưới sự bảo trợ của một cam kết bản quyền Creative Commons “Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike” (CC BY-NC-SA) (nghĩa là, giấy phép Tài sản Sáng tạo Công cộng cam kết “Ghi nhận công của người sáng tạo-Không thương mại-Sao truyền giống gốc). Điều này nghĩa là, bất kì ai thực hiện theo cam kết bản quyền sẽ 1) phải trích dẫn trang mạng này, 2) không sử dụng nội dung của trang mạng này vào mục đích thương mại, và 3) đảm bảo rằng bất kì sự tái bản hay chuyển đổi thông tin của trang mạng này phải tuân theo qui tắc của cam kết bản quyền này.

Visualizing Nationalists in 1945 Vietnam

I came across a report from October 1945 that was created by the US State Department. It contains biographies of nationalists in Indochina.


In the fall of 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam to be independent. This undoubtedly caught US officials by surprise, and this report was put together in an effort to figure out who the important people in Vietnam were.

The report therefore contains biographies of the main members of the “Provisional Viet-Nam Government.”


And it also contains biographies of the members of the “General Viet-Nam Council.” I can’t recall what this was. Was this an advisory group for the new government?


Then it also contains biographies of the members of the “Provisional Executive Committee of the South Viet-Nam Republic.”


And then in addition to people from these three groups, this report also contains biographies of other individuals who were determined to be prominent nationalists, such as Cao Dai leaders and members of various political parties.

Taken together, these biographies paint a confusing picture of the political scene in Vietnam at that time. I thought it would be interesting to try to “visualize” what this information that US intelligence officers compiled might look like.

So I created a couple of visualizations using RAW (which I explain here), and this is what they look like:



What I did was to create a spreadsheet where I put the names of these people whose biographies are in this report and their “political affiliations.” And then I used RAW to create these visualizations.

In many cases, the political affiliations of people were not clear, because not enough was known about the people.

So, for instance, several people are listed as members of the “General Viet-Nam Council.” But what exactly did that mean? It’s obvious that the person (or people) who compiled this information wasn’t really sure.

As a result, I find that making visualizations of the information in this report is very helpful. By creating different visualizations, we can try to imagine what it would have been like for an outsider (like members of the US State Department) to try to make sense of what was happening in Vietnam in 1945.

What becomes obvious is that it would have been very difficult to grasp what was going on, because the dynamics on the ground were obviously extremely complex.

Visualizing Daoism in Trần Dynasty Vietnam

I’m reading a book called Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology Will Transform Our Understanding of the Past by David J. Staley. This is how the book is summarized on the back cover:

book “For hundreds of years, historians have used prose and narrative to convey history. This is about to change thanks to new technology, digital scholarship, and computerized ‘visualization.’ Text itself has inherent limitations: the very use of words — their meaning and the connections among them — shapes and restricts how historians think and communicate ideas. The rise of the computer is radically altering how human beings receive and process information. Digital environments and virtual reality are adding a third dimension to communication and creating a new visual language.”


This new “visual language” of the past is being produced now in various ways. Tom Chandler at Monash University, for instance, is developing 3D representations of the Angkorean empire, and is attempting to be as accurate as possible in doing so, by relying, for instance, on the work of archaeologists to determine how tall people were at that time, and by relying on texts, inscriptions and murals to determine what they wore.


Other people, meanwhile, have tried to replicate exactly what the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor would have seen that morning, by determining what exactly the terrain would have looked like at that moment in time, where the sun was, what the light would have been like, etc.

While these types of visualizations are attempts to see what the real world looked like at various historical times, other scholars are trying to find ways to visualize data or information. When we have a large of amount of data or information that we want to be able to make sense of, finding ways to visualize that data or information is one way to do this.


Recently I was thinking that finding ways to visualize what it is that we “know” about Vietnamese history would be a good way for us to test our knowledge. Take, for instance, our knowledge about Daoism.

I sometimes hear people talk about “Trần Dynasty Daoism” or “Daoism during the Lý Dynasty period” etc. Well, what do we actually know about Daoism during the period when the Trần Dynasty ruled?

We know that on some occasions the emperor wore a cap that had Daoist origins. We know that there were Daoist ritual specialists who prayed for rain. We know that there was at least one Daoist ritual master who came from Fujian and who went off to live in a cave. And . . . that’s about all we know (of course I’m exaggerating here to some extent).


If we just think about how limited our information is, we can already get a sense of how difficult it is to talk about “Daoism” during the Trần period, but if we had a way to visualize this, then I think this point would be even more obvious.

If, for instance, we could find a way to take from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư examples from the Trần Dynasty period that refer to practices that we associate with “Confucianism,” “Buddhism,” and “Daoism,” and then visualize that information, what would we see?


My guess is that we would realize that when we talk about “Trần Dynasty Daoism,” we are actually basing that idea/concept on very little information.

Instead of there being some teaching or tradition or institution that we can label “Daoism,” what we would realize is that all we really know about is that the emperor had a cap, someone prayed for rain, and that there was a guy who lived in a cave. Can we really call this “Trần Dynasty Daoism”?

Again, I’m exaggerating things here a bit, but my point is to say that some of the things that we say about the past would probably stop making sense if we could visualize what it is that the words we are saying actually refer to. Because the things we say, and the information we base those statements on, are often quite different from each other.

If we tried to visualize what it is that we talk about, I think we would “see” this, both visually and intellectually.

Creating “Living Translations” for Vietnamese History

I’ve written quite a lot on this blog about the problem with using modern Vietnamese translations of historical materials that were originally written in classical Chinese (Hán).

Recently in reading Trần Quang Đức’s Ngàn năm áo mũ, I see that the author makes the same point. In his case, the reason why the modern Vietnamese translations are problematic is because the people who made the translations simply didn’t possess sufficient knowledge about clothing in the past to be able to translate from Hán accurately.

Having done a lot of research on this topic, Trần Quang Đức can translate those passages accurately, and in his book he includes as an appendix his own translation of a section of the An Nam chí lược that deals with clothing.


That’s great, however unless a person who reads the An Nam chí lược knows that Trần Quang Đức retranslated that passage, s/he will never know that there are problems with the section of that book that is about clothing, and will not know that a better translation exists. So retranslating part of a text and putting it in a place where many people will never see it, is not really the most effective way to improve knowledge.

Is there a better way? Yes there is!!


A few years ago I had the idea of creating a web page that would contain “living translations.” My idea was to put on a web page both English-language translations of texts that had been originally written in classical Chinese and the classical-Chinese sources that I based the translations on (here), and to then make it possible for people to comment on the translations.

Basically, I thought that this would be a good way to get people to point out mistakes in my translations, or in the input of the Hán text, or to simply offer alternative translations for passages that are difficult to understand, and for which we cannot be 100% sure of how to translate.

This process of getting readers to contribute to the editing or creation of texts is called “crowdsourcing” and it is a technique that even publishers are now starting to employ, as some publishers are now putting books online for people to comment on first, before they get finally revised for publication in print (and ebook) form.


However, when I was doing the translations, I didn’t have the knowledge to create a web page where this would be possible.

Well now we don’t need that knowledge anymore because there is a free plugin for WordPress that makes this possible.

Called “CommentPress,” it enables someone who is using the WordPress software to create a site where one can place text on the left-hand side of the screen, and enable readers to write comments about the text on the right-hand side of the screen.

I just spent a couple of hours this morning trying to get it to work, but I couldn’t succeed. Then I finally realized that it does not work with the free version of WordPress that I use – WordPress.com (I wish I had figured that out a little sooner. . .). Instead, one needs to either pay for an upgrade to be able to customize WordPress.com or one needs to use WordPress.org.

WordPress.org is “free,” however you have to set it up on your own server (which is not free, but it’s also not all that expensive if you use a service like GoDaddy.com). I haven’t really researched this, but I think customizing WordPress.com or using GoDaddy.com to get a domain name and hosting services would be somewhere around US $100 a year (if a knowledgeable reader reads this, please correct me if I’m wrong).

That is expensive for a poor student, but it’s not very expensive for an organization. Finally, many organizations already have server space, in which case they can just use WordPress.org on their existing server.


So getting back to Vietnamese translations, what we need to do in order to enable people’s knowledge to advance is to create a site for “living translations” (i.e., translations that are “alive” because they can be constantly updated by people who leave comments) of Vietnamese histories. The image above is an example of what this might look like.

I’m not sure if this would get publishers upset (in fact, one can already easily find Vietnamese translations online. . .), but I think that it can actually help publishers.

How? Like this:

You put the original text of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and the modern Vietnamese translation on a WordPress page that is using CommentPress. You let people comment on the translation for a few years.

Then you get someone, or a group of people, to look at those comments, and you then “update” the existing version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and publish it as the “New, Updated, 2015 Version”!!!

That will make the print version of the book more appealing, and the editing will have been done for free, because it was crowdsourced. The only cost will be in getting people to look over the comments and input the changes that they agree upon.


A “living translation” and a print or ebook translation can and should be able to co-exist. It is much more enjoyable to read a book or an ebook than it is to read a text with multiple languages and comments. However, for scholarly purposes, multilingual texts are very important. And it would be particularly valuable to be able to see comments that people write in which they offer more accurate translations (such as if someone like Trần Quang Đức were to comment on the passages where there are mistakes in the translations about clothing).

The National Library of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation created a multilingual version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, but it’s “frozen in time.” Whatever mistakes exist in that translation cannot be changed.

We should be able to change such mistakes, and to do so in a way so that other people can easily see the changes (rather than publishing them in books where people might never see them). Now we can easily do that. All we need is for someone or some organization to take the lead and do it.

The Mahasattva in the Mountains and the (Unnecessary) Impermanence of Scholarship in the Digital Age

One work that I have been meaning to read for several months now is The Shadow Left Behind: A Monograph on the Painting The Mahasattva Trúc Lâm Coming Out of the Mountains (Bóng hình để lại: Số chuyên đề Trúc Lâm Đại Sĩ xuất sơn đồ) by Nguyễn Nam.

This monograph is about a painting that was produced in 1363 about an event that had occurred in 1304. In 1304, Trần Nhân Tông, a Trần Dynasty emperor who had stepped down from the throne in the late thirteenth century and had retreated to the mountains to practice Zen, emerged from the mountains to confer the Bodhisattva commandments on his son, the current emperor Trần Anh Tông.


How does one paint a scene of an event that occurred some 60 years earlier? That’s a problem. Further, there were many Ming Dynasty intellectuals who later wrote poems and other literary pieces about this painting (that were ultimately written on the painting). Again, how do we understand their views, given that they were written long after the fact and were produced by multiple authors?

These questions are the issues that Nguyễn Nam looks at. Obviously this painting and the literary pieces that accompany it are not representations of “reality.” So what does all of this represent, and how do we understand it?


Ultimately Nguyễn Nam argues that the imagery in the painting is stylized to some extent (understandable, given that it was painted long after the event it depicts), and he sees the literary information as representing a kind of “co-authored” text.

Beyond this, there are many details in the world that Nguyễn Nam discusses in this work that point to the rich social and cultural setting of the time. While Trần Nhân Tông was a “Buddhist,” “Confucian” and “Daoist” ideas and images abound in the writings from this period. We also see that the elite in this period was extremely cosmopolitan. Daoist masters from Fujian arrived in Đại Việt and found a welcome home, as did Song dynasty soldiers who fought alongside Đại Việt troops against the Mongols.

In the end, to thoroughly understand this period is very difficult as one has to be well versed not only in classical Chinese, but in Buddhist writings in classical Chinese as well. Nguyễn Nam is a brave man to take on the challenge. I am definitely a neophyte when it comes to this latter field, so that is one aspect of this book that I feel that I simply cannot evaluate.

That said, I don’t think that there are many people out there who can, and this gets me to the point that I really want to make about this book, and that is that it (like a lot of other scholarship) should be read by more people than it ever will be in its current form.


The world of scholarship in Vietnam is fixated on books. Why? I think it is for social reasons more than for scholarly ones.

There is a very rich social tradition in Vietnam surrounding books. Scholars love to give others their books, and scholars love to receive books from other scholars. When people give a book to someone, they write a nice note on the first page, and this exchange serves a very important social function.

While this is all wonderful on a social level, it is a big problem for the advancement of knowledge. Because when so many books are published in small numbers, if a person is not there when a book comes out or when a scholar is giving out the copies that s/he has, then. . . you may never be able to read what that person wrote.


I feel like this is particularly the case with The Shadow Left Behind as it was published in a journal, Suối nguồn, which as far as I can tell, is not available anywhere outside of Vietnam (this is the case with some other journals as well, like Nghiên cứu và phát triển, but some issues of that journal are at least available online).

While this has long been a problem, it is getting more acute now that in other parts of the world 1) libraries do not have money to buy books and 2) people are moving toward publishing in non-book forms.

You have, for instance, platforms like Scalar, that are emerging and that are being developed to enable people to publish academic works online in new ways. As I was reading The Shadow Left Behind, it struck me that this is a work that would benefit greatly from being published in a non-book form.

This text is accompanied by various images, the original Han text and appendixes. In the linear form that books take, it is difficult to try to move back and forth between the Vietnamese text and the original Hán text in the back of the book, etc.

Platforms like Scalar, however, allow people to create “non-linear” texts. And they allow readers to make choices – they can keep reading, or they can click to  go look at the original Hán text, and then they can click and go back to the main text, or they can click to go of in some other direction, etc., depending on how the author designs the “book.”


A platform like Scalar also makes it possible for readers to leave comments. In a field like pre-modern Vietnamese history where there are so few people who can read classical Chinese, and even fewer people who can understand Buddhist writings written in classical Chinese, producing a “public” and “living” book that readers can comment on, and which an author can “revise” at any time, would be great for scholarship.

Obviously it would take courage on the part of an author to make a text “public” for others to comment on (and I guess I should practice what I preach and try it first). And another problem concerns how such online texts can be evaluated – some people need to publish material in an “official” format for it to be recognized for their job (but this is something that will inevitably change as the publishing culture changes).

Ultimately, continuing in our present mode of producing knowledge just doesn’t seem to make much sense. Why make the effort to produce something that only a small number of people will ever be able to read? And when people work in small fields, why produce work in ways that it can’t be quickly corrected/changed/improved/expanded?

Trần Nhân Tông may have spent years contemplating the impermanence of life, but we are wasting our own impermanent lives if we spend our time producing scholarship that few people ever see or comment on.

It’s time to free ourselves from books and linear thought. It’s time to go Scalar (or some comparable means of producing “books” in the digital age).


Gatekeeping Historical Knowledge in the Digital Age

Writing this blog has been an interesting experience. Some people like what I write, and some don’t. What I have come to realize, however, is that the people who are the most strongly opposed to what I write here tend to be people whom I would call “gatekeepers” (người giữ cửa).

In the academic sense, “gatekeepers” are people who control access to knowledge. They also might be people who control access to careers in the academic world.


For instance, in the second half of the twentieth century in (North) Vietnam, there were four scholars who played this first role with regards to knowledge about Vietnamese history: Đinh Xuân Lâm, Phan Huy Lê, Hà Văn Tấn and Trần Quốc Vượng.

If you wanted to know about the Vietnamese past, you had to pass through one of the gates that each of these men guarded. They interpreted the past for (virtually) everyone else, and if you wanted to understand the past, you had access it through their respective interpretations/gates.

Certain laws can also contribute to “gatekeeping.” In the case of Thailand, for example, the lèse-majesté law goes a long way towards guarding a gate concerning knowledge about the monarchy. And in Indonesia, the restrictions on free expression during the New Order period (1965-1998) also guarded the gate to knowledge about the past.


So while this effort to guard access to knowledge has historically been very strong, the Internet has made it difficult to keep guarding those gates. Now people can access information that comes from multiple sources, not just from gatekeepers.

In addition, the rapid increase in recent years in the number of people who study abroad also works against the efforts of gatekeepers, because when students go to a foreign country, they might find that the scholars there don’t agree with (or don’t even know anything about or care about) the gatekeepers in the country that the student comes from.

So how do you maintain a gate in such a world? And is doing so even desirable?


Ironically, at the same time that it is getting more difficult for gatekeepers to maintain their personal dominance, Wikipedia is popularizing their ideas.

Studies have been done in the US that show that the average person who writes a Wikipedia page is a white male in his late teens or early 20s (the exact type of person who would follow the [conservative] ideas of a gatekeeper). So basically all of human knowledge (on Wikipedia) in English at the moment is now being created by young white guys who support the ideas of gatekeepers. . .

Having realized this, there are now people in the US who are starting efforts to “rewrite” Wikipedia entries by getting people who have different perspectives to contribute.

It will be interesting to see where this all ends up.


What I think all of this shows, however, is that the idea that academic knowledge is something that a privileged few control through the gates that they guard is one that is going to be harder and harder to maintain in the years ahead.

So if you are a gatekeeper of knowledge, what do you do? Should you give up the gate and try to survive in a world in which the production of knowledge is being democratized? Should you keep guarding your gate in a world in which gates are increasingly coming under attack and being marginalized?

Or maybe there are other options?

Mapping Military Posts in French Indochina

Following on the post below, here is an attempt at making a map of military posts in French Indochina in World War II.

mil posts

On the map page you can switch to “terrain” view by clicking on the dropdown menu in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.


It is interesting to do so as it makes it clear that in Tonkin, military posts were placed around the edges of the Red River Delta, and along the borders. There was a particularly numerous group of posts near the northeastern coast. I would be interested in knowing what the reason for that was (expecting a naval attack?).

Lao mil posts

Another point that I find interesting is that there were only four military posts in Laos. . . Also, we can see again here that the borders were different then.

Mapping the “Ban” in Colonial-Era Vietnam

A few days ago I wrote an entry about a secret report about Caodaism from 1944. I found that report in a text called the Gazetteer of Indochina. This gazetteer was compiled by the Indochina Section of the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Ministry of Information in New Delhi during World War II.


The main part of the text consists of a list of the names of villages in French Indochina, as well as their latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. I think the British compiled this information so that they would know, among other things, where to bomb.

In any case, as I looked at the list I noticed that there were many place names that began with the name “ban.” Sometimes transcribed in English as “baan,” this is a word for “village” that we can find in many Tai languages, such as Lao and Central Thai.

I was curious to know where place names that contained the term “ban” in Vietnam were, so I decided to map them out. There are many such place names in Laos, but I was interested to see where in Vietnam places that began with the term “ban” were.

ban excel

I first spent some time inputting the place names and the coordinates into an Excel file. That was really annoying and boring!! 😦

Once I had done that, however, creating the map was very easy. It was fun and exciting!! 🙂


I used an online program called BatchGeo. All I had to do was to copy the data from the Excel file, paste it in the space provided on the BatchGeo website (here), and click “Map Now.”


The results were interesting. First of all, one village ended up out in the sea. I double checked the coordinates, and I input them correctly, so the information in the Gazetteer of Indochina must be incorrect.

map north

Another point that was interesting is that some of the place names that the Gazetteer of Indochina lists as being in Tonkin or Annam are today in Laos. I don’t know anything about the post-war history of that border, but it looks like it has changed.

map south

It is also interesting that there is a cluster of villages in the South that start with the term “ban.” That was not an area where there were Tai-speaking peoples (as far as I know). Perhaps the term was used to refer to places where people who were not ethnically Vietnamese lived. However, if that was the case, then I would think that one would find the term more widely used in the Center and South.

So I’m curious to know why there were so many “ban” in that area. That said, the Gazetteer of Indochina must be based on gazetteers that the French made, and one has to wonder how accurate it is. So the obvious next step would be to consult gazetteers that the French made during the colonial era.

ban ong

Finally, when you click on one of the markers for a place name, it provides the name that I input from the Gazetteer of Indochina, “Ban Ong” in the case above, and it also provides a current place name.

Again, I’m not sure how accurate any of this is yet, but this could potentially be a very helpful tool for connecting places during the colonial era with current place names (if they have changed).

I wanted to try this as I am interested in the digital humanities and this map is a good example of what digital tools can help us do. The digital humanities is to a large extent about making data visual so that we can see issues in a new light and ask new questions.

This exercise here in “mapping ban” shows, I think, that there is indeed a lot that we can do.

The actual map that I made can be accessed here.

[For the gazetteer, see the National Archives of Australia: NAA: A1067, PI46/2/4/1 Gazeteer of Indo China. Far Eastern Bureau.]